Ofsted's blog: Safeguarding is about culture, not box-ticking

28th September 2018 at 09:04

Emma Ing, Her Majesty’s inspector and Ofsted’s regional director for the East Midlands, asks: what is safeguarding?

In our professional circles, safeguarding is a term you hear a lot. But the term is perhaps somewhat removed from everyday lives.

Earlier this month, Ofsted inspectors, school leaders and local authority representatives gathered at the Leicester Racecourse and Conference Centre to discuss that very question. They heard first-hand from local and national safeguarding experts about a range of problems, from so-called honour-based abuse to self-harm.

We often hear about school leaders and teachers being anxious to get it right for Ofsted – to do what Ofsted wants. So Ofsted’s East Midlands region’s first-ever safeguarding conference opened with a reminder that what Ofsted really wants is to improve the lives of children and young people. We want to do this through better educational outcomes and improved safeguarding practices that help to keep children safe.

It turned out be a thought-provoking and highly informative day. I was struck most of all by the passion of the speakers, often borne from their own personal experiences. Jasvinder Sanghera CBE exemplified this with her keynote speech.

Jasvinder Sanghera

Supporting victims

Jasvinder ran away from home at the age of 16 to escape a forced marriage and went on to found the charity Karma Nirvana, which supports victims of forced marriage and so-called honour-based abuse. Now in its 25th year, the charity has won awards for its work to support victims, both men and women. Jasvinder captivated us with the many stories of the victims she has supported, as well as those who have not survived. Sometimes harrowing, her talk was nonetheless a reminder of the difference that schools can make.

The language we use is important if young people are to trust their teachers and report their concerns. Dr Jenny Lloyd from the University of Bedfordshire gave a talk about contextual safeguarding. This approach recognises that the risk of children being harmed goes beyond their families: the different relationships that young people form in their neighbourhoods, schools and online can feature violence and abuse. Many children have difficult choices to make about how to keep safe and sometimes get it wrong, making choices that seem to be helpful in the short term, such as gang membership, but are injurious in the long term.

I was shocked to learn that up to 70 per cent of girls report encountering sexual harassment in school. Yet, for a variety of reasons, this goes under-reported. Schools have a vital role to play in both preventing and reducing peer-on-peer abuse.

Seeing things as they are

Jenny explained that sexual harassment and violence can be seen as part of a continuous sequence of behaviours. These range from harmless to inappropriate, and to the abusive and violent. If unchecked, sexist name-calling and unwanted touching that takes place in school corridors and in playgrounds can become normalised and leads to worse forms of abuse. The language we use to talk about these issues is not always helpful: no young person has ever made a "lifestyle choice" to be sexually exploited.

Our own senior inspector, Nick McMullen, shared some of the important findings from Ofsted’s joint targeted area inspections, with particular reference to domestic abuse and the neglect of older children. It is easy to misread the signs of neglect of older children and see only a "difficult child". The child’s behaviour is often seen as the problem and this is reflected in the language we use: we do not see beyond "challenging behaviours" to a child who is vulnerable.


Message of hope

Too often, we do not zoom out from the immediate problem to see the bigger picture of a young person who may have suffered multiple abuse, but whose needs are not always understood because they have been traumatised. The good news is that schools can make a difference, not least in challenging poor decision-making about older children and escalating concerns where need be. In the recent joint targeted area inspections of the response of agencies to older children experiencing neglect, we saw examples of schools making a real and positive difference for children, including by challenging poor decision-making.

The message that ran throughout the day was one of hope, despite the often sombre subject matter. This was especially evident in the last session, which focused on self-harm and suicide. Sarah Kessling from the charity Harmless shared some shocking statistics about the proportion of people in the UK who are affected by suicide. She pointed out the importance of giving those who self-harm access to the right medical and therapeutic support.

Making a difference

With the right ongoing support and help, many children who have suffered abuse re-build their lives and are able eventually to deal with the underlying causes. Like Jasvinder, Sarah is a survivor who shared with us her own story. For Sarah, the one teacher who listened made all the difference and was instrumental in helping her to get her life back on track.

This was an important message to end on. Schools can and do make a difference, provided the right support is in place. But – to come back to the question of "what is safeguarding" – the conference’s main message was clear: it is not a tick-box exercise. Safeguarding is not something that you can put on a yellow post-it note and cross out before lunchtime. Rather, it’s about culture. It is up to us as leaders to create environments in which we encourage people to come forward and raise concerns, we ask the right questions, and we make sure children get the right help at the right time.

You can follow Emma on Twitter @EmmaIngHMI